[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers about Sunday's episode of Feud: Bette and Joan. Read at your own risk.]
Sunday's episode of Feud: Bette and Joan focused on the next chapter of the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? stars' rivalry. It's 1964, they're living in a post-Baby Jane world and are most definitely no longer It Girls. But they are in demand for a whole new wave of films that ironically started with Baby Jane: hagsploitation pictures — horror thrillers starring aging grand dames in garish, grotesque, scenery-chewing roles. (And yes, Joan Crawford did wave an ax down theater aisles at Strait-Jacket screenings.)
Itching for another hit — and to remind everyone who was responsible for this trend — Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) forces Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) to get the band back together for a spiritual sequel of sorts in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) agree with certain caveats: more upfront dough, more backend dough, and Davis becoming a producer. The plan was a role reversal for the stars: Crawford's Miriam would be the one torturing Davis' Charlotte this time.
Feud: Bette and Joan: How Ryan Murphy recreated that "devastating" Oscar night
But Crawford wound up the victim all the same — some by her own making and insecurity, some by Davis' rumored gaslighting. Getting stranded at the airport when she arrived in Louisiana at the end of the episode was just the beginning of Crawford's paranoia that she was being phased out — and most of this will play out in next week's hour.
(Real-life spoiler alert: In retaliation, Crawford checked in to the hospital to try to get production shut down, but she ended up getting replaced by Davis' BFF Olivia de Havilland.)
We caught up with executive producer Tim Minear, who directed the episode and co-wrote it with Gina Welch, to discuss how the Feud crew went about "resetting the table" post-Oscars, the hagsploitation craze, and if Davis was really gaslighting her rival.
The Oscars was such a high point in Bette and Joan's feud and on the show, but Charlotte was also a big and, in some ways, final chapter in their feud. How did you guys go about breaking these final three episodes?
Tim Minear: The idea was always that we wouldn't be spending the whole season on the making of one movie. The truth of the matter is that the feud between Joan and Bette sort of reached its climax at the Academy Awards, but there was more feud to be had because after that happened, the astonishing fact is everybody felt desperate enough to kind of reclaim the old glory and get the band back together, including Bob Aldrich, Bette and Joan, Victor Buono. Try to do it again. The idea was always that we'd have this big climactic moment in the middle of the series, Episode 5, and then Episode 6 would be resetting the table, more minor keys, and we would be getting into the story leading to the ending. It's about the sun going down, it's about mortality, it's about the last gasp and grasp at glory. In order to do that, you have to bring the characters to a high point and then crash them down to a low point, and you got some drama.
I love the cold open at the Strait-Jacket premiere — Joan wielding the ax down the aisle.
Minear: That's everything, right? [Laughs]
Did that happen? Did she have to do that on the press tour?
Minear: Absolutely. We recreated the Strait-Jacket trailer and then the tour with William Castle is all real. We researched it. That's what she did. She went around the country with a 3-foot ax — a prop ax — and she would come down the aisle and that's what they would do. William Castle was known for his gimmicks. He would put toy buzzers under seats for his movie The Tingler or he would have ghosts in 3-D. His movies were always terrible and he'd come up with these gimmicks that would bring the audiences into the theaters. In 1963, '64, he made Strait-Jacket and got the biggest gimmick of all time and that was Joan Crawford. So he took her around and paraded her in front of theater audiences around the country. And it's true. She would come down the aisle in a glamorous gown wielding an ax. Oh, how Mildred Pierce has fallen!
I like that that's not what she took umbrage with, but when the group of girls came out with the mini axes. It's both like that was too far and that she didn't like sharing the spotlight with them.
Minear: Yes, exactly. She thought she was the gimmick and she didn't understand. All that is there to really set Joan's psychological state. She's always trying to keep her chin up, always trying to contort herself with dignity, but forces around her are conspiring.
Baby Jane kick-started the hagsploitation craze. How do you think Bette and Joan each felt about this phenomenon? It feels like they each accepted it at different levels because it presented more work to them even though it's not the work they had thought the success of Baby Jane might lead to.
Minear: I think that's probably very true. We allude to it in Episode 4, Bette goes to Bob and says, "I have a movie I want you to direct." And it was a movie she made called Dead Ringer, where she played her [own] twin sister. That actually came out the same year as Strait-Jacket and she did go to Bob and asked him to direct it. But instead it was Paul Henreid, her Now, Voyager co-star, who directed it. So I think both Joan and Bette, whether they embraced hagsploitation — I think Bette more on some level, because she had always been a character actress, so I don't think there was any shame in playing a hag; she had played glamour-pusses and hags. She did anything because she was a character actor. I think with Joan, there had to have been some cognitive dissonance but a lot of denial. I think she had to have been in denial about some of the cheesier, more humiliating projects that she took on, but she would always approach them as if they were Hamlet.
Bette seemed like she was more able to go with the flow, probably because she was a character actress. She never had to rely on her glamour and beauty like Joan did, whereas Joan is clinging on to the last vestiges of stardom.
Minear: That's right. There's some self-delusion there with [Crawford].
Do you think the explosion of hagsploitation had a lot to do with timing? Jack says everyone wants to see their favorite stars, specifically actresses, be degraded, and it just so happened that all the big stars of the '30s and '40s were hitting a certain age at this time. And the studio system was falling apart, so stars had to find work on their own.
Minear: Yeah, you're right. I think in a lot of ways it was a perfect storm. I think what you had was a generation of true Hollywood glamour aging at just that time. It was a perfect storm. I think Jack is entirely correct. A lot of this is the visceral thrill of seeing the humiliation of particularly a woman, who was unreachable and a goddess, being brought down a rung. There really is something to his theory.
I liked the subplot of Joan and her brother Hal. Even if you knew nothing about Joan, you got the whole spectrum of their troubled upbringing and contentious relationship here. I know he died around that time, but how did you decide to include that story in this particular episode?
Minear: I think it was important to tell that part of Joan's story. We're not telling a Joan Crawford biography, we're not telling a Bette Davis biography. But that all happened around the time we said it did. Hal was always after her for money. He probably did blackmail her. And then he died exactly how we said he did [of a ruptured appendix]. And they were about to shoot Charlotte. Because this episode is about endings and about mortality and about the sun going down, it felt like a real detail that said something about Joan.
To me, the most important thing about that story was — the myth that had always dogged Joan throughout her life was that she had appeared in stag pictures. But everything Joan came from is now gone. The only thing left was this brother and now he is gone too. That past that she had been running away from her whole life, that past that had actually driven to create this creature Joan Crawford is now gone. I think for Joan the only thing left for her was this artifice that she had created and that starts to fall apart. I don't think she knows who she is anymore. The thing I like about that was instead of weeping, instead of praising the fact that he's gone, what she does is the most cold, calculated thing imaginable: She goes to the phone, she calls her business manager and she cancels the check. I thought that was great.
I think in real life she was in New York when he died, right? And she had sent a telegram. Your version is more fun.
Minear: Yeah, that's true. Yeah, we took some liberties.
There are legendary stories and reports that Bette was gaslighting Joan on Charlotte. You guys walk a fine line with never completely leaning one way or the other. It seems it could just be Joan's paranoia thinking she was being excluded, but it also seems like Bette saw an opening with her position as a producer. How did you guys arc that out and play it down the middle?
Minear: It's a very conscious choice on our part. I imagine those two things are true. In other words, Bette would have no real reason to sabotage Joan except for emotion. What she says in the show is, "I need you to be great." The way to calibrate that is to gather all the facts and we did and then tell a story you almost can't believe actually happened. You can't believe the stuff at the Oscars happened, but you also can't believe what happened in Louisiana and on the set of Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. But it all did. The other thing that Ryan [Murphy] and Gina and myself used were our cast. By the time we got to this point in the story, Jessica really knew who she was playing and Susan really knew who she was playing. And we were taking a lot of input from them. They were really collaborating with us on how to strike a balance and make sure the tone was right. That's how you play it down the middle. You're not doing something mild, you're not playing down the middle in that sense, but what you're striving for is a believable balance while telling the real story and that's what we attempted to do.
Do you personally think Bette was gaslighting her? Was she behind no one picking Joan up at the airport?
Minear: I don't know if she was behind that, but yeah, I think she was gaslighting her a little bit. [Laughs] Quite frankly. I don't know if she was doing it consciously, but being there on set during takes and whispering to the director.
Cutting her scenes and not doing another take.
Minear: Yeah, she did all that. I'm sure from Bette's point of view she was just trying to make the picture better and she was trying to do the right thing. But I think she was gaslighting her. I think she was so furious about that Oscar. She was furious about that until her dying day. I think she felt humiliated. I think on some level she did it on purpose.
She probably wasn't expecting Joan to check in to Cedars-Sinai and try to shut down production.
Minear: No. That to me is the most amazing thing. She checked into that hospital about three more times than we even have it in the story. We have her go back, but she would come in and go out, come in and go out. It was amazing. That's all in Episode 7.
Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10/9c on FX.